Japan, ASEAN, and the Construction of an East Asian Community

By Hwee, Yeo Lay | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2006 | Go to article overview

Japan, ASEAN, and the Construction of an East Asian Community


Hwee, Yeo Lay, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Japan-ASEAN relations have been one of ambivalence. Perceptions differ among the elites and the ordinary folk of the different ASEAN states, ranging from animosity to pragmatic tolerance to admiration of the Japanese economic success. On the other side of the coin, a public opinion survey done ten years ago by the Japanese Prime Minister's Office reflected that Japanese generally do not have very favourable views of ASEAN states. This apparently has not changed much over the years. The 2005 survey that polled the Japanese on countries that they had positive feelings towards showed that less than 50 per cent had positive or generally positive feelings towards ASEAN countries.

Yet, despite the public opinion and perceptions, Japan-ASEAN relations at the official level, and also economically, have progressed steadily since the enunciation of the Fukuda Doctrine by then Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda in 1977. "The Fukuda Doctrine, the first doctrine as such in Japanese foreign policy to be proclaimed by the government formally, states three commitments to Southeast Asia: (1) Japan rejects the role of a military power; (2) Japan will do its best to consolidate the relationship of mutual confidence and trust based on "heart-to-heart" understanding; and (3) Japan will be an equal partner of ASEAN, while attempting to foster mutual understanding with the nations of Indochina (Sudo 1992).

The Fukuda Doctrine was the first attempt by the Japanese to adopt a more independent policy towards the region in the wake of US withdrawal and the end of the Vietnam War in 1976. Before this doctrine, Japan's foreign policy was Western-oriented and underpinned by the strong US-Japan relationship (Maswood 2001).

However, Japan's attempts to play a more active diplomatic and political role in Southeast Asia as a bridge between the non-communist ASEAN and the communist Indochina did not yield much progress. The attempts to use official development assistance (ODA) to lure Vietnam out of the Soviet orbit did not succeed. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978, Japan adopted a policy of "Support ASEAN" in which its Southeast Asian policy become more synchronized with ASEAN's quest for regional stability and peace and approach towards solving the Cambodian crisis (Sudo 2002, pp. 3-4; Lam 2001, pp. 120-1).

With the end of the Cold War, and the tremendous changes in the region and globally, Japan-ASEAN relations have also undergone subtle changes. The opportunities for Japan to play a regional role has increased considerably. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 hastened the process of Japan becoming a more active foreign policy player. There were considerable expectations that Japan would play a constructive role in assisting the countries burdened by debt and help avert severe regional and global economic downturn. The Japanese government was indeed generous in providing financial assistance, but still there was a perception then that Japan had again failed to grasp the moment and establish strong leadership credentials (Maswood 2001, p. 2).

After the Fukuda Doctrine, the other milestone in Japan-ASEAN relations had to be the 2003 Tokyo Declaration, which was issued during the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit to mark 30 years of relationship. The Tokyo Declaration sets an ambitious long-term goal of creating an East Asian Community.

Unfortunately, two years after this ambitious declaration, and after the much anticipated inaugural East Asia Summit (EAS) held in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, the goal of an East Asian Community may actually be a little more distant than it had been in 2003. What contributes to this rather sad reality, and how do Japan-ASEAN relations fit into the picture? What should Japan and ASEAN do or not do if there is indeed a genuine desire to create an East Asian Community?

Japan's Southeast Asian Strategy?

Does Japan have a Southeast Asian strategy? …

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